The New Folk Horror: Recent Work by Sarah Hall, Conor O’Callaghan, and Malcolm Devlin
By Nina AllanNovember 18, 2017
Madame Zero by Sarah Hall
Nothing on Earth by Conor O’Callaghan
You Will Grow Into Them by Malcolm Devlin
— Adam Scovell, Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange
“I believe,” Paul said, “that if we don’t believe in demons, they won’t believe in us. Do the demons believe in us? That’s the question. The day the demons believe in us, we’re in real trouble.”
— Conor O’Callaghan, Nothing on Earth
IN HIS new book on the landscape and folkloric tradition as it relates to British horror cinema, Adam Scovell returns again and again to the question of what constitutes “folk horror.” Is it a resurgence of interest in occultism and New Age philosophies born out of the counterculture of the late 1960s? Or could it be the inevitable tragedy that occurs when modern metropolitan man — for it has generally been men who have claimed the starring roles in folk horror’s touchstone texts as Scovell identifies them — becomes alienated from the landscape and culture of his rural forefathers? Perhaps it expresses a thwarted desire for authenticity in an increasingly artificial environment, or articulates a political tirade against the continuing inequalities of the British class system?
I would argue that Scovell’s hesitation in assigning a precise definition — his tendency toward a “you’ll know it when you see it” approach — arises from the fact that all horror and especially British horror is, in a sense, folk horror. Horror fiction and film has always explored the myriad ways that fundamental wrongness — dis-ease — is found in those places where we traditionally seek refuge. Of all the speculative genres, horror is particularly obsessed with place. Those who argue for science fiction as the most overtly political form of the fantastic often point to horror’s putative conservatism, its preference for isolated settings — old houses, bleak moorland, remote villages, that dodgy patch of wasteland on the edge of town — and its seeming indifference to the wider world. Yet one can also see horror’s obsession with place as, by extension, an obsession with history, with the past as it meets the present and offers warnings about the future. In this regard, horror is the most subversively political of literatures, mired in causality up to its armpits.
Scovell’s touchstone texts — films like Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973) or Peter Plummer’s TV adaptation of Alan Garner’s 1967 novel The Owl Service (1969–’70) — are characterized above all by the myth of a return to the land that many would claim as folk horror’s most characteristic attribute. Yet we need only look to works like Alan Clarke’s film Penda’s Fen (1974) or Peter Dickinson’s “Changes” trilogy (1968–’70) to see that Cold War cosmopolitanism has proved every bit as significant in terms of its influence on British horror as hippie rusticism. If the two core ingredients of strange fiction are iconoclasm and anxiety, it is easy to see why the 1970s were such a fertile soil for artists with a creative leaning toward the uncanny. Weird narratives of the ’70s were obsessed with reconnecting us with our sense of place, even if such belonging turned out to include the suppression of dissent, Satan worship, or human sacrifice. There is a “better the devil you know” undercurrent to ’70s horror that could be seen as a natural corollary to the anxiety and sense of powerlessness that comes from living in a world teetering on the brink of Armageddon.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 saw a lessening of these anxieties and a corresponding shift in horror narratives out of the countryside and into the newly encroaching realities of global capitalism. As horror went mainstream during the 1990s, it became more extroverted, less intimate. Yet over the past decade, folk horror has been experiencing a resurgence that parallels if not surpasses that of the 1970s, and it is not hard to see why. The swaggering confidence of the ’90s has evaporated. Global terrorism, climate change, corporate disenfranchisement, and forced migrations have all impacted our sense of self as well as our relationship to our surroundings. In British horror literature especially, these shifts have produced the sense of a void at the heart of things, a defamiliarized landscape rife with political extremism and mass psychosis. If ’70s folk horror was all about embracing our pagan past, contemporary British weird fiction seems to suggest that we have no past, that our mendacity as a nation has rendered it forfeit. As writers and citizens, we are adrift in a landscape that is being steadily, inexorably erased in front of our eyes.
English author Sarah Hall would probably not refer to herself as a horror writer, yet those elements that best characterize folk horror — a rootedness in landscape and a bone-deep, anxious awareness of dis-ease — recur in her work to such an extent that her relevance to this discussion cannot be in doubt. Hall’s first novel, Haweswater (2002), is the story of a rural community facing extermination at the hands of corporate greed. Her Tiptree Award–winning and Clarke Award–shortlisted The Carhullan Army (2007) explores a dystopian near-future England through the eyes of a band of female resistance fighters, while her more recent novel The Wolf Border (2015) imagines a newly independent Scotland on the cusp of re-wilding. In her latest collection of stories, Madame Zero (2017), Hall returns to the themes of anxiety and transformation that formed the backbone of her earlier collection, The Beautiful Indifference (2011), but with an increase in both bleakness and urgency.
In “Mrs Fox,” the story that opens Madame Zero and that won the 2013 BBC National Short Story Award, a comfortably well-off middle-class couple are forced into an entirely new set of circumstances when the woman, Sophia, experiences a literal return to the land and transforms into a vixen. There is nothing allegorical or airy-fairy about this metamorphosis — Sophia literally becomes a wild fox, living in the woods and eating her meat raw. She makes messes on the kitchen floor. She offers her husband no indication that she is anything other than entirely satisfied with her new life. Eventually she gives birth, a development the husband watches with a thrill of recognition and acceptance:
Privy to this, no man could be ready. Not at home, skulling the delivery within the bloody sheets, nor in the theatre gown, standing behind a screen as the surgeon extracts the child. The lovely sting in him! They are, they must be, his.
There is a sense of rightness here that is unfamiliar and unexpected. The man does not try to prevent or deny Sophia’s changing. He recognizes instinctively that “he has no role, except as guest.” As a result, “Mrs Fox” feels very different from other, similarly themed stories — such as Angela Carter’s “Penetrating to the Heart of the Forest” (1974) — in which a woman’s metamorphosis acts as a trigger for her male partner’s desire to control. We sense Sophia’s dissatisfaction with the life she has been accustomed to lead, yet we also sense her mate’s willingness to continue his life alongside her insofar as that remains possible given the circumstances. Against all odds, they remain together: “Mrs Fox” is a story not only of the distance between people but also of the fierceness of personal attachment, the unbreakable connections that are bound to endure.
Similar themes are explored in “Case Study 2,” though with a less happy outcome. A young child, Christopher, has been placed in the care of social services after being expelled from the commune where he grew up. Christopher has no understanding of individual identity — he invariably refers to himself in the first-person plural. This chronic dissociation is a major concern to Christopher’s psychotherapist, who confesses in private transcripts that her involvement in the case may have been compromised by her own inability to become pregnant. Shortly after referring to himself as “I” for the first time, Christopher dies, leaving us to ask if the individualism we deem so desirable might not also be toxic. Stripped of communal structures, the intimate bond with the landscape that had defined his existence, little Christopher quite literally ceases to be.
Themes of unbelonging and separation from one’s personal context are again explored in “Wilderness.” As in Hall’s earlier, thematically related story “She Murdered Mortal He,” the protagonist finds herself isolated in a foreign country, unsure of the rules that silently govern the behavior and relationships of the people around her. When her husband and his childhood friend Zach hatch a plan to walk across the rusted railway viaduct that spans a scenic river estuary, Becca’s fear of heights is waved breezily aside. As Becca’s terror mounts, we learn that her acrophobia may have its roots in a past that comes to her only seldom, and in dreams. “Wilderness” is a masterful story in which the surrounding landscape not only reflects the personal anxieties of the characters but also radically alters the relationships between them.
A more overtly speculative vision is at work in “Later, His Ghost,” a terrifyingly bleak climate change story set in a near-future Norwich. Britain is more or less permanently ravaged by monster storms; whole communities have been swept away, with thousands of casualties and irreparable damage to much of the country’s infrastructure. The protagonist is holed up in a barn on the outskirts of town, his life reduced to two primary concerns: taking care of a traumatized pregnant woman and locating a complete copy of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. His vision of himself, as he briefly catches sight of his reflection in a broken window, speaks poignantly for all who have survived and struggle on:
He looked like some sort of demon. Maybe that’s what he was, maybe that’s what he’d become. But he felt human, he remembered feeling human. His ankle hurt, which was good. He could use a can opener. And he liked Christmas. He turned away from the mirror and climbed back out the window. Snow was flying past.
The claustrophobia that pervades this story is so powerful that we continue to feel suspicious of the more recognizable environment depicted in the piece that follows. “Goodnight Nobody” is told from the point of view of young Jemima, or Jem, as she delivers a packet of sandwiches to her mother, who works as a mortician at the local hospital. The outward simplicity of the narrative belies the tensions and dangers lurking beneath: not just the stark choice Jem’s mother faces in trying to care and provide for her daughter, but also the ways in which Jem herself must learn to survive in this seemingly banal world of corner shops and busy A-roads, where death is always closer than you think. “One in Four,” a vignette in the form of a suicide note, pushes the world of “Goodnight Nobody” to its logical conclusion, with vested interests and corporate penny-pinching sending our globalized economy spiraling toward a disastrous endgame.
In all these stories, Hall’s personal concerns — new parenthood, separation and abandonment, individuality and the loss of it — are the foreground for a more general sense of disquiet, a concern with the decomposing landscapes of our contemporary lives. This is folk horror at its most intimate, its most precarious. Hall obsessively shows the undermining of social reality through a doctored political consensus, the potential for imminent destruction that hovers on the margins of everyday life. The pieces that make up Madame Zero are shorter, more impressionistic than the stories in Hall’s earlier collection, but in terms of their intensity and political weight they are every bit as substantial, a perfect balance of language and content, poised at the magical midway point between the distillation of poetry and the vicariousness of prose. Hall’s alternation of mimetic with more overtly speculative texts conveys a queasily jolting effect, leading us to question the apparent normality of our lived environments.
In Conor O’Callaghan’s brief but powerfully haunting debut novel Nothing on Earth, published in 2016 in the United Kingdom and recently reprinted in the United States by Transworld Publishers, an environment that should be prosaic in the extreme — a nondescript close on an anonymous housing estate — is rendered as a landscape so uncertain that it gradually becomes invisible, particularly to those who would rather not be reminded of its existence. The events of the novel are narrated by an elderly priest who, during one memorably hot Dublin summer, becomes caught up in a series of incidents that affect his life and plague his memories. Paul, his wife Helen, and her twin sister Martina come to live on the estate because it is cheap, one of the numerous “ghost” building projects that were abandoned in the wake of the Irish recession. One night toward the end of August, the priest answers his front door to find Paul and Helen’s 12-year-old daughter seeking refuge following her mother’s disappearance earlier in the summer. The girl tells him that not only has Helen disappeared, but that her father and aunt have as well, the house reverting to an empty shell: “The things of a show house belonged to lives that should have happened but never did. They gave off no noise at all, and that was more deafening than anything.”
The priest feels uncomfortable about being alone in the house with the child, and there are hints of a dark shadow cloaking his past. He calls in a neighbor to act as chaperone, though he is later forced to admit that she did not stay in the house with them overnight. As the priest looks back over the events of that summer, we are confronted with one disquieting question after another: What happened to Martina and Helen’s parents, a tragedy so terrible it sent the sisters overseas for many years? Does the estate — the postmodern stand-in for the quintessential Bad Place of classic horror literature — possess the uncanny ability to literally eat people, or is it simply a metaphor for the social and economic deprivation that stalks the land? What of the Slatterys, as doomed and desperate as the rest of the estate’s shrinking populace in spite of their middle-class pretentions? Above all, it is the weather that leaves its mark on this novel: the days feel endless, taking on a dreamlike quality, the stealthily encroaching madness of a long hot summer.
The water rationing intensified. The taps ran dry from eight every evening. It hadn’t rained for almost two months. The mounds of muck up at the townhouses had dried to a fine orange sand that blew off in plumes whenever a warm wind came swirling around. The sand got everywhere: into the house, their clothes, everything. It got on the scraps of furniture they had, on the fruit in the picnic salad bowl. Every mug of tea or coffee seemed to have a film on its surface. You took a shower and the shower basin was coated with it, as if you had been at the beach all day. There was no point in cleaning the windows: within twenty-four hours they were gauzed with sand again.
The narrative teems with uncanny acts of duplication and mistaken identity — twin sisters who cannot be told apart, an elderly couple who appear to have walked out of a photograph, a confusion over names. At one point the estate, so new it is still partly a building site, is tellingly referred to as “historic ruins.” We shiver with apprehension of ghosts come to life:
It was mid-afternoon and they felt like aliens. It was, Paul said, like a coach tour of the Balkans, where you take a pit-stop in one of those dying hamlets that had been the centre of some medieval empire.
This is horror of the most resonant kind, because it is real and because it is happening now. There is a feeling of stasis twinned with impermanence, a halt to progress combined with a pell-mell stampede toward the new. Into the disappearance of this fractured family we read the disappearance of entire communities, thrust out of their own lives by an economic imperative to strip away the social provision we have spent so long in building. The priest’s shock as he is confronted by the reality of the failed housing estate — an environment that increasingly resembles a war zone — reminds us that, in a sense, O’Callaghan’s book is itself a ghost, the kind of narrative some people would prefer not to come into contact with at all.
Most of all, Nothing on Earth serves as an antidote to that fraction of horror fiction that is still mostly concerned with reassurance: Gothic melodramas in which the ghosts are safely confined to the past, sets of familiar tropes that suggest it is only those who wander off the path who will fall afoul of fate. O’Callaghan shows us that horror is now, and we are the demons.
As a society, we often feel more comfortable collecting press cuttings about tragedy than asking meaningful questions about its genesis. Nothing on Earth is less than two hundred pages long, yet its implications and reverberations carry more weight than many novels three times its length. Like Hall, O’Callaghan achieves his effect not through elaborate metaphors or densely styled “literary” writing, but through a declarative, pared-down prose and the gradual accumulation of significant detail.
While both Hall and O’Callaghan could be cited as authors of the literary mainstream with folk-horror sympathies (Hall has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and O’Callaghan is a prize-winning poet), Malcolm Devlin’s work feels as if it sprung directly from the compost of ’70s folk horror, finding inspiration — and a renewed vigor — in the tropes and assumptions of authors such as Robert Aickman, Ramsey Campbell, Robert Holdstock, and Joan Aiken. His debut collection, You Will Grow Into Them (2017), thus perfectly embodies the shifting emphases and new grounding imageries of folk horror in the 21st century.
The collection opens conventionally enough, with a classic piece of English weird fiction, “Passion Play,” in which a teenage girl subsumes the anxieties of her troubled family into an obsession with a “stick man” who she believes haunts the icons in her local church. In its conflation of landscape elements with a lingering social unease, the tale has a strong taste of 1990s miserablism about it (think: Nicholas Royle, Joel Lane) and is exactly the kind of well-made, literary horror story one has come to expect from the British magazine Black Static, where “Passion Play” was originally published.
In the next story, “Two Brothers,” we begin to see You Will Grow Into Them move away from ’70s folk horror and toward a more modern and personal aesthetic. When his older brother Stephen is sent off to school, William remains behind at the family home. Standing at the station awaiting his brother’s return for the Christmas holidays, William finds himself devastated by the gulf that has opened between them:
He smiled when he saw them waiting for him, but it was not the lopsided grin which William remembered but a thin smile he didn’t recognise, and it was not directed at him personally. When William turned, he saw the same smile reflected on his father’s face. It was a cold expression, colder than the snow and the wind, and it was then William understood that while his brother had come home, he would remain alone.
“Two Brothers” is replete with elements of the uncanny we might recognize from Robert Aickman’s strange stories, yet there is something more too: a hyper-modern awareness of social divisiveness. We understand it is the father’s insistence upon tradition that poisons the boys’ future, rather than anything specific that happened at school. As in Sarah Hall’s “Case Study 2,” the enforced destruction of personal bonds leads inexorably to mental torment and eventually, breakdown.
The bonds of community are further explored in Devlin’s longer story, “The End of Hope Street,” in which the residents of a single street — parallels here with the estate in Nothing on Earth — are forced to abandon their homes when they mysteriously start becoming “unliveable.” We never learn the source of the power that transforms the residents’ houses into shadowy death-boxes. What we see instead is the impact of these events on the families of Hope Street, who respond to the crisis in differing ways. For a significant majority, the enforced return to values of good-neighborliness and closer personal proximity comes as an unexpected pleasure. They realize they do not, after all, need so many things, so much personal space. There are no grand confessions or personal epiphanies — one of the charms of this extraordinary story is how British it is — just a tacit redrawing of boundaries, a mutual understanding that they will stay together:
There would be a Christmas that year in Hope Street, no matter what happened, no matter what it represented. It would be both spiritual and secular and in its own peculiar way it would be an act of rebellion. Because even joy and companionship could be subversive, under the right conditions.
Extreme societal change is likewise the subject of “Breadcrumbs,” a deliciously twisted variant on the Grimms’ “Rapunzel.” Ellie lives in a tower block on an inner-city estate. Far from finding her circumstances restrictive, she simply reimagines her world as she wishes it to be:
She’s always preferred the view at night. The estate looks so bleak in the daytime, but now, the grey concrete of the surrounding tower blocks is consumed by the encroaching dark and only the lights remain. Dot-to-dot clues which her imagination mis-draws to denote superstructures coiling up into the night. The lights of the traffic on the distant bypass? Those aren’t cars grounded on the road, they’re flying machines on an express route, looping the loop at the intersection. She cocks her head and watches them fly.
Then her dreams, in a way, come true. Left alone in the flat when her parents and brother go to visit an aunt in hospital, Ellie awakes to find quotidian reality entirely gone, replaced by a startling fairy-tale landscape of forest and trees:
The city is barely a city any more. The estate has a beauty to it now. Where it had once been coloured in shades of concrete and steel, it is now a rich and wide expanse of browns and greens. The tower blocks are wrapped in roots and vines. They grow branches that stretch high. The tarmac at street level has been shattered into jigsaw pieces by the growth from beneath.
As in “The End of Hope Street,” these radical changes to the built environment are eventually accepted as a positive development. The characters — like Sophia in Sarah Hall’s “Mrs Fox” — embrace their new animal natures while the remaining “hu-mans” are seen as cave-dwellers, conservative primitives to be pitied for their old-fashioned insistence on staggering around on two legs.
The obverse of such tolerance is seen in “Dogsbody,” a darkly satiric fable in which a seemingly random swath of society encounters prejudice and social exclusion after becoming affected with “Lunar Proximity Syndrome” — in other words, they turn into werewolves. This is a story that pulls no punches in detailing the dozens of tiny ways in which minority groups routinely find themselves bullied, exploited, disadvantaged, and set apart:
A little superscript asterisk pointed to a lengthy paragraph of small print at the foot of the page. A promise that an affirmative answer would not invalidate the chances of employment, a warning that a dishonest one would lead to disqualification.
Equally incisive in its social comment is the novella-length story that forms the centerpiece of this collection. The protagonist of “Songs Like They Used to Play” is famous for having once been “little Tommy Kavanagh” from the hit reality-TV show Family Time. The program ran for years and, in spite of its deleterious effects on the real Kavanagh family, attracted a devoted following:
During the live shows, the public were invited to dress up and serve as background extras, a proposition so popular that security was increased. To Tom, the set took on the aspect of a bizarre prison. One where people from the future were happy to queue for hours in the rain for a chance to get in, while he peered through the fences at the modern world beyond, and wondered if he might find the opportunity to escape.
Now an adult, Tom reconnects with an old boyfriend, Bobby, who secretly harbors more nostalgia for the show than Tom himself:
“We get a lot of stag parties in York,” he said. “I’ve got double glazing, but you can still hear them out there screaming at each other. You know what I hear most? ‘Two world wars and one world cup.’ And they’re still talking about the fucking Empire, like that was ever a good idea. But that’s all we’ve got in the world now. We’re this little island rotting into itself, feeding off our sordid little past, lying to ourselves that it was something to be proud of. […] But then you hear something like this and somehow … Somehow it all makes more sense. Like it’s an anchor, a safety line. Something beautiful to hold on to. A promise that if the world could have been this good once, there’s hope for us yet.”
“Songs Like They Used to Play” is an original and persuasive story that riffs on our current obsession with “frock and bonnet” shows like Downton Abbey, with royalty and celebrity, with the sanitized heroism of historical romances and World War II movies. Brexit may be the most recent and significant demonstration of the power of such falsified narratives — the fairy tales of our own time — to affect the trajectory of our political present, but it is far from being the only one. Devlin’s insights into modern Britain are rendered all the more potent by his clear grasp of the cultural preoccupations of the recent past, a past many of us will remember first hand, those ghosts we happily recall on Christmas Eve, or Hallowe’en.
As Malcolm Devlin adds himself to the ranks of those writers — Paul Kingsnorth, Benjamin Myers, Aliya Whiteley, Wyl Menmuir, Jess Kidd, Helen Oyeyemi, Cynan Jones, Caitriona Lally, Andrew Michael Hurley — who are currently leading the new folk-horror revival, we are reminded that what unites these very different artists is their commitment to using the gestures and imagery of folk horror as a means of expressing highly contemporary political concerns. Disenfranchised through false histories and bigoted ideologies, the characters that people their stories are no longer able to find comfort and strength in the deep truths of their surrounding landscapes because the very origins of those landscapes are rooted in slavery and oppression.
No matter how twisted, the folk horror of earlier decades was created from a sense of continuity and, above all, nostalgia. Now we find stories increasingly powered by the engine of change. The new folk horror — metamorphic and disjunctive — is in part a voicing of our personal distress in the face of that change, but it is also an acknowledgment that change is necessary. We can no longer avoid the knowledge that entire classes and races of people have been systematically excluded from any sense of ownership of our landscape and history, and have consequently found the familiar environments of folk horror defunct and irrelevant. In order to escape our sense of statelessness, it is necessary for us to examine the state we are in.
Nina Allan is an English writer of weird and fantastic fiction. Her novella Spin won a British Science Fiction Award in 2014.
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